Much Ado about Nothing ?
A new report from a minority of the members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has an amusing title. “Much Ado About Nothing”, is of course a Shakespeare comedy. But there’s nothing amusing about what Committee Chairman Lamar Smith has been up to over the last few months.
Denying climate change is the order of the day under the Trump administration, and Lamar Smith has joined the fray with admirable zeal. It sure helps to have the House Science Committee at your disposal. Just about anything can be weaponized these days, and the Science Committee has turned out to be a weapon of considerable potency.
One of the main strategies of the climate change deniers is to fiercely challenge the notion that global temperatures are inexorably increasing by a fraction of a degree each year. When reputable scientists reported that they had detected a period after 1998 when temperatures seemed to be increasing more slowly, this information was seized upon by those that deny that climate change exists as proof that the global warming ‘hypothesis’ was nonsense. After all, the data had been published and discussed in several well-known scientific journals and the credentials of the scientists involved were flawless.
A serious amount of publicity was given to this finding by the House Committee. The slowing of the rising trend line came to known as the ‘hiatus’. And the hiatus was important. Because it wasn’t a manipulation or a deliberate misinterpretation of scientific data. It wasn’t a cherry-picking mission. It was genuine scientific data published in several peer-reviewed articles. You can imagine the satisfaction across the denier blogosphere.
Lamar Smith, like Scott Pruit the head of the EPA, is a lawyer. It is not clear that Smith has a solid grasp of how science actually works. But then, it is not clear that he needs to. So when atmospheric scientists at institutions like NOAA and the UK’s Met Office started to examine the temperature data a little more closely, and more importantly when they were able to combine atmospheric data with ocean heat content data, the numbers came out a little differently.
This is classic science. This is the way science works. Measurement, analysis, speculation and hypothesis is followed by disagreement and alternative hypotheses: it is an ongoing process that continues until the majority of scientists can’t find much else to say about it, and their attention shifts elsewhere. It then becomes accepted science, a scientific ‘fact’–at least until more accurate data or a different explanation once again brings accepted thinking into question. The process is inherently contradictory–but the contradictions are resolved by closely analyzing and questioning the most accurate data and the most carefully compiled evidence. If the process is going to work, it requires scientific integrity, honesty, skill, and transparency. Science can be complex, but it is the most communal of endeavors. In principle, everyone gets to say what they think. This is the strength–but also the weakness of science.
Like several other institutions working on atmospheric science, NOAA looked into the curious question of the Hiatus. The database is huge and the analysis is complex. But the data they measured and analyzed did not show any statistical indication of a pause or hiatus in the slow but inexorable increase in global temperatures. They checked it again: the data was sound and the science was solid.
NOAA submitted a paper to Science magazine in December 2014. The lead author was Thomas Karl. It was reviewed by other scientists selected by the journal –which found no flaws in the method, the analysis, or the findings. According to the article in Science published 6 months later in June 2015 after two peer reviews, the so called ‘hiatus’ never existed. The paper, now referred to as the Karl study, caused quite a stir among those that had proclaimed the hiatus as irrefutable evidence that global warming wasn’t happening, and that by extension climate change is a myth.
For Lamar Smith, science is an activity pursued for political ends. No finding is unbiased; evidence is just a point of view; the interpretation of data is colored by the political persuasion of the analyst and the political orientation of the institution in which the science is being conducted. Science is just another construct of human curiosity like sociology or psychology. There are no facts, only opinions. Evidence is an artifact, and proof is just conjectural.
The response of the Chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee was immediate. The paper by Thomas Karl was dismissed, disparaged, and criticized. Not for its methodology, its data, or its findings—after all, it had been twice reviewed by anonymous experts in the field and found to be valid. It was attacked because it conveyed a message and reached a conclusion that was not just inconvenient—it was toxic. It challenged a central tenet in one of the climate change deniers strongest arguments—that climate warning wasn’t true and that the ‘Hiatus’ was positive proof. The Karl study totally undermined the climate change denial position.
Lamar Smith is not a scientist. Chances are he’s not that interested in ocean heat content and the fact that 90 % of the heat absorbed by the Earth finishes up in the oceans and that’s where you should look if you want to measure global warming.
Lawyers work by challenging and undermining evidence, and if that doesn’t work, by impugning the character and the motives of the witness. It’s part of the playbook first developed by the tobacco industry decades ago. Pick holes in the methodology; imply that data has been manipulated; refer to irrelevant information and ask why it wasn’t included. And it always helps to impugn the credentials of the person who has dared to present an alternative viewpoint. And of course, question the timing of the publication—implying it has a political purpose and that therefore the science is subordinate.
The fuss was dying down—as it usually does when climate deniers can find nothing in the way of evidence or data to support their contrarian point of view—when, and just like in a Shakespeare play, a new character emerged from the shadows.
Enter stage left: John Bates.
John Bates was a senior scientist at NOAA at the time Thomas Karl and six colleagues published the paper effectively rubbishing the idea of a hiatus in the upwards trending global temperatures. Bates knew all about the paper, its methodology, data analysis and its contentious findings. He should have: he signed off on the paper before it was submitted to Science.
But in February this year, six months after the paper was published in Science, John Bates, was quoted on a blog post as saying that he thought there were flaws in the way that data had been formatted, and in the way it was archived. He was careful to stress that the data had not been manipulated and that he did not question the conclusions of the study.
Bates’ concerns about database management and accessibility were instantly repackaged by the sensational UK tabloid media and trumpeted in Britain’s Daily Mail on February 4, 2017, under the headline “How world leaders were duped into investing billions over manipulated global warming data”.
Chairman Lamar Smith wasted no time. In fact, it is clear he was ready and waiting. The day after the Mail on Sunday article was published, the Science Committee issued a Press Release almost as sensational as the Daily Mail’s: “Former NOAA Scientist Confirms Colleagues Manipulated Climate Records” headlined the text issued by the Committee on February 5, 2017. It’s obvious that Chairman Lamar Smith knew about the sensational UK tabloid press article well in advance. Enough time for the Science Committee to prepare its companion text and issue it as a hugely publicized press release the next day.
John Bates scrambled to set the record straight –and in two interviews on February 6, sought to stress that there was no such manipulation of the data. But by then it was too late: his protests of innocence were drowned out by the clamor of deniersphere war cries.
There is more to this story–and the report by the Science Committee members titled: “Much Ado About Nothing”: A Minority Review of the Majority’s Climate Science Investigation, is a carefully written and documented presentation of the case file.
But the Thomas Karl affair is Much Ado about much more than Nothing.
The House Science Committee is a leading exponent for the evisceration of science: when science is no longer based on carefully measured and corroborated evidence, but judged solely by its relevance to policy. Scientists are characterized as nothing more than lobbyists. Specialized lobbyists to be sure, but lobbyists all the same. And therefore to be welcomed in or shown the door according to the relevance and usefulness of the message they bring. If the message is inconvenient and the messenger too persistent, tools are available to undermine the message, attack its authenticity, and to disparage and denigrate the messenger.
Lawyers owe no allegiance to the truth. There is no truth for lawyers—the truth is the version that gains the most support, the argument that sways the public to the greatest extent. This is what lawyers do. They can and do argue a case both ways. The truth is irrelevant because it counts for less than popular belief. It follows that the creation of the myth is more important than the quest for the truth. Truth is just a concept. A way of seeing. But there are many ways of seeing. And some are much more useful and profitable than others.
It was a masterful gambit to place a lawyer at the head of the Science Committee. Knowing nothing about atmospheric science or oceanography, his job is to ensure that the science ‘lobbyists’ are managed so that the scientists’ work that conforms to climate change policy is showcased, and that inconvenient results are classified and minimized as uncertain, doubtful, or just plain wrong.
Much Ado about Nothing may be a comedy; but Much Ado about Climate Change is a tragedy. And one that Chairman Lamar Smith refuses to recognize.
Source: “Much Ado About Nothing” A minority Review of the Majority’s Climate Science Investigation. Prepared by Democratic Staff of the House Committee on science, Space & technology for democratic Members and Staff.